“I’ll just ask Hannah to schedule the roast for 7pm.” Credit: iStockphoto
AS YOU PULL UP at the traffic lights, there’s a melodic chirping from your handheld device. A friendly face pops up, smiling. It’s Hannah. She asks if you’d like her to cool the house and start the pool filter – the GPS in your electric car has alerted her to your approach. Also, since the cheaper, off-peak electricity rate just kicked in, she’s wondering if you’d like her to put on the washing you left earlier and run the dishwasher too.
You feel an easy rapport with Hannah, and why wouldn’t you? She’s the Home Area Network (HAN) that controls the electronic devices in your house, and charges your car. Not only does she answer to your every whim, she coordinates the best use of electricity in your home – this way you can save money by running power-hungry devices at off-peak times and even make cash back by diverting power from your solar cells into the grid during the day, from there it gets stored in a battery substation a few blocks down the street.
Think it sounds like a Jetsons-style, daft future scenario? Actually, a lot of the technology exists, and is about to become widely available. Welcome to the world of the smart home and its sister, the smart grid.
Already across Victoria, smart meters are being fitted that tell the grid how much power you’re using, and charge a different rate at peak and off-peak times of day. Last year in the Sydney suburb of Newington, a family of human guinea pigs lived in a smart home created by electricity provider Ausgrid and Sydney Water. This house had a HAN — or energy dashboard — and tested energy- and water-saving technologies, as well as generating its own power from solar cells and a ceramic fuel cell. In this way, the family generated most of their power, some of which they stored in batteries in both the house and their Mitsubishi i-MieV electric car. (Find out more about the smart home here and here)
“In 20 years time we will all have access to much more information about how we use our electricity. The smart grid won’t require us to change our lifestyle; instead we will have automated devices that help us manage our consumption,” says Dr Glenn Platt who heads up the CSIRO’s Energy Transformed Flagship in Newcastle, NSW.
“One problem for electricity networks at the moment is the problem of peak demand: where many devices and homes all use electricity at the same time… we want to be able to spread out the times when devices operate to better regulate the total electricity consumption.”
Currently, a considerable 10 per cent of investment in infrastructure is spent to handle electricity usage peaks that occur just one per cent of the time. Electricity generated at peak hours is also expensive. The idea behind the smart grid is to link existing electrical infrastructure up with communication and information technology to make it more responsive and better able to regulate itself.
American provider General Electric likens the current grid to a star “with energy and information flowing in one direction from the centre — from utilities to end users”. The smart grid of the future, according to GE, will be more like the Internet: “an interactive web, or ‘energy Internet’, with two-way communication [and] multi-directional power flow”.
“If you consider a modern telecommunications network, it bears little resemblance to the humble phone system that Alexander Graham Bell implemented some 130 years ago,” explains Adjunct Professor Robin Eckermann, vice president of not-for-profit industry group, Smart Grid Australia. “In contrast, electricity networks haven’t evolved far from where they began…There is some computer-based monitoring and control, but it is limited to the upper reaches of the grid.”
Platt says key benefits of the smart grid are that it’ll be more efficient and easier to control, that electricity should theoretically be cheaper and that it’ll be possible to include much more renewable energy in the mix. “The current electricity system is designed for electricity to flow in one direction, but as we put more renewable energy into the system, more and more electricity will flow in the other direction. With the old system, this is going to be difficult to deal with,” he says. “Renewable energy, particularly solar, is intermittent, and electricity companies are not used to having sources of power that turn on and off. But a smart grid can have devices to cope with this.”
For example, with the level of control and intelligence provided by the smart grid, electric car batteries could store power while parked helping balance supply and demand across the network.
But the reach of the smart grid won’t end with your car. Via your very own Hannah, or energy dashboard — smart-chip-enabled devices will decide when to switch on or off depending on peak demand. There’s great scope for all sorts of appliances to moderate energy use, says Eckermann. “In many cases — dishwashers and washing machines — it doesn’t matter to the end user whether the appliance races through its cycle and finishes at the earliest possible time, or delays its operation in order to avoid peak times.”
With devices such as air conditioners and heaters you might be willing to tolerate a several degree change in the thermostat if it saved you money, he says. Other appliances, such as pool pumps and freezer compressors, need to run periodically, but it doesn’t really matter when. “All in all, there’s great scope to shed some demand, and shift other demand to moderate peaks,” he says.
Hurdling into the future
It all sounds very positive, and it’s technology we can expect to be commonplace within 20 years — but there must be hurdles yet to be overcome before the ‘energy Internet’ becomes reality.
Adrian Clark, chief technology officer for Ausgrid, which powers 1.6 million homes and businesses in NSW, says suitable batteries are one stumbling block. “Sometimes people don’t want to use [renewable] electricity when it’s windy or sunny, so we will start to see more energy storage solutions — these will be batteries in a number of forms,” he says. “[Some might be in electric cars], but we might also have battery substations to store power at a community level. Better batteries are one of the big technological challenges.”
Dr Cathy Foley is the Chief of the CSIRO’s Material Science and Engineering division in Sydney. She believes that improving wires and cables would allow utility companies to save up to vast amounts of electricity. Her idea is to send current through wires made from a superconducting material which would save the 10 per cent lost in transmission. Currently these cables have to be cooled to cryogenic temperatures, but they are already being trialled in Tokyo.
Foley says that superconducting cables could provide “innovative solutions to technical bottlenecks” in the electricity grid. Her prediction is that room temperature superconductors could even be on the market by 2030, bringing their cost way down — but this is advanced technology that still requires much basic research.
A more immediate hurdle is how utility companies will cope with the sea of data coming from smart meters and energy dashboards. “We will have very large amount of data coming from homes which will requires a big IT solution,” says Clark. “There’s also the very real risk of cyber security — the potential of some people to hack into the electricity grid.” But, as the banking industry — with its 30,000 ATMs in Australia — has learnt to protect itself against hackers, Clark is confident that utility companies can manage it too. Protecting people’s private information and data on energy consumption in their homes is going to be another consideration for utility companies.
“The existing electricity network is a long way behind the technology of modern communications systems,” says Platt. But these many innovations will bring it kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
Author: John Pickrell
Source: ABC Environment